Well, OK, “SUCKS” in all caps might be a strong word. But there, I said it: I do not like brainstorming, almost “hate it with the fire of a thousand suns.”
This widely used technique (well, semi-wildly, as quite often I see it being misused actually), advertised and encouraged by the most prominent design thinking/creativity brains, is – in my eyes – not best at all! Not unless I change the rules, anyway.
So let me deconstruct this concept and tell you exactly why I think it’s bull and – more importantly – how I can make it better (yes, follow my lead!).

Let’s start at the very the beginning, a very good place to start. Standard brainstorming, the most basic one – and the most popular at that – has a few rules leading to alleged success. My favorite/shortest explanation comes from the IDEO’s Method Kit, here in a nutshell:

+ Defer judgment
+ Encourage wild ideas
+ Build on the ideas of others
+ Stay focused on the topic
+ One conversation at a time
+ Be visual
+ Go for quantity

Sounds great, right? Free, inclusive, crazy way to produce ideas (and it’s so much better to exercise the idea muscle when we go mad!) While I agree with the rules, I also noticed that the interpretation and involvement changes based on the environment. When you deep dive into how that works in a standard team, you might be in for a surprise. In times that praise collaboration, encourage the exchange of ideas, and cultivate cross-border discussions the pressure on brainstorming, and its positive outcomes is pretty high.

So sometimes this noble concept can work in a completely different way. People don’t feel confident and welcomed enough to go for the crazy ideas (what if my boss thinks I’m not qualified!). Frequently the general notion is that “oh, someone else will say something so I can lay off this one, ha!” and… well, that’s the opposite of what we want, isn’t it! Last, but not least, standing around the whiteboard makes the team try and figure out the middle ground, instead of producing a multitude of crazy ideas. We automatically peruse the already glued sticky notes, and our brains drift towards something that would be wild, but not wild enough, and innovative, but less creative than some of the already visible ideas.

It doesn’t mean that 100% of the above happens in 100% of the teams, of course, but we tend to fall into at least one of those drawers. Results? Well, not very brainstorming-ly.

(QUICK) FIX THE (B-)STORM

I still use brainstorming – guilty! Not every time can I get out of the most popular method, and frankly many times it’s the “best for the occasion” kind of thing. If I have to go with this one, there is a quick fix I apply – silent brainstorming.

Silent brainstorming is a fancy name for producing ideas individually, without discussion and looked at the smorgasbord of sticky notes. That gives a bit of privacy, so we don’t feel judged by others, and eliminates our crazy thinking that maybe what we have in mind is stupid (pro tip: it isn’t! the craziest the better!). And you can still build on the ideas of others when we move forward and share our ideas, and then brainstorm together!

CHANGE THE GAME

Here’s a recipe that will make the brainstorming a bit… better, I dare say! So here we go!

First, you will need the following:

+ Blank playing cards (alternatively, if you don’t have the blank deck, you can cover the faces with stickies)
+ Pens
+ Timer/stopwatch
+ Some music, if you wish (and you should always wish!)

Easy-peasy, am I rite? So, how does that game work?

 

Here is a sample walkthrough:

+ (Prepare the cards, if you must – stick the stickies to create writable space)
+ Give each participant a bunch of cards and a pen (important!)
+ Set two timers (or switch between them): 30 seconds work time, 10 seconds break, last round longer (adjust it to the group size, timescale, etc.)

Now, first round = first 30 seconds:

+ Participants write their ideas for the problem in question, one idea on one card (sort of like a silent brainstorming)
+ Immediately after, they put the card idea/face-down, without discussing it, without talking to their colleagues

Then, break, and during the break, your role is to shuffle the cards, so they can’t remember which ones are theirs! Then, second round – second 30 seconds:

+ Each person picks a card from the table and building on the idea they received – write an extension, or a new one inspired by it, on a new blank card
+ Each card, again, lands on the table, making the whole new collection

Then, the second break, and you reshuffle the ideas. At this point, you have a bunch of original ideas, and a bunch of ideas built/inspired by the OG ideas. You can do as many of the inspiration rounds as you wish, depending on how your group responds. Then, third round, third 30 seconds:

+ Let your participants flip the cards up, but DO NOT let them read the ideas just yet
+ Divide participants into groups of two, maximum of three
+ Each group goes over the ideas and adds five more – they can discuss them together (P.S. ideally, they should discuss bias-free, but in reality, you won’t have enough eyes to watch over all the groups, and that’s ok)

OK, with this new batch of ideas you should have plenty to choose from at this point! After that, you have one last round before you move to categorize them further, but for one, final round – you can extend it, as it usually takes longer to reach consensus:

+ Each pair/group discusses the ideas very quickly, there NO BIAS, but REASONS WHY, just reasons why they like it
+ They should come up for at least four ideas per group
+ You groups the ideas together so all groups can get back together and discuss them further

And now, categorization – and whatever method you use (priority axis, dot voting, six thinking hats, etc.) will work! I talk a bit about some of them on this blog, click the link.

This game that I’ve devised is by no means perfect, and the only method that should now be used to brainstorm. However, it gives the participants the freedom of thinking, the ability to move and exercise the “let’s go for a walk” muscle a bit, but also work in pairs/groups for a second (before going back to groups exercises after).

Try it sometimes, let me know how it works, or how you changed it to suit your workshop!